San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (10-2) at New Orleans Saints (10-2)

This is one of the biggest games of the year, as it could be an NFC Championship preview and could easily end up deciding homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC when all is said and done. The 49ers have fallen to 10-2 after an 8-0 start, but both losses came by a field goal against teams that are also 10-2 and, despite those losses, the 49ers still rank 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +7.94% and 2nd since week 7 at +5.65%, only behind the red hot Ravens. 

The 49ers also haven’t been healthy in recent weeks, but they’re closer to full strength than they’ve been in a while right now. Defensive end Ronald Blair and linebacker Kwon Alexander are out for the year and safety Jaquiski Tartt is also out this week, but cornerback Akhello Witherspoon (6 games), right tackle Mike McGlinchey (4 games), tight end George Kittle (2 games), left tackle Joe Staley (9 games), safety Jimmie Ward (3 games), running back Matt Breida (3 games), and defensive end Dee Ford (2 games) are all expected to play this week after missing significant time earlier in the year. 

The 49ers are getting healthy at the right time ahead of this tough matchup. The Saints only rank 13th in first down rate differential on the season at +1.54%, but their offense was significantly worse with quarterback Drew Brees out of the lineup. With Brees on the field, the Saints have a 38.58% first down rate, which would be 6th in the NFL on the season. Their defense, meanwhile, ranks 12th in first down rate allowed on the season at 34.87%, so this is a very complete team. 

I actually have the Saints a little bit higher in my roster rankings than the 49ers, though that’s dependent on whether or not injured left tackle Terron Armstead is able to return from a 1-game absence after being limited in practice all week. My pick will be dependant on that as well. If Armstead plays, I like the Saints’ chances to win by at least a field goal at home, but I’d like the 49ers to pull the minor upset if Armstead can’t play.

Final Update: With Armstead playing, I’m switching my pick to New Orleans. This line is now 1.5 in most places, but that doesn’t matter.

New Orleans Saints 23 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -1.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-8)

Both of these teams underperformed expectations last week, with the Saints barely escaping with a last second, game winning field goal as 10-point home favorites over the Panthers and the Falcons losing at home by 13 to the Buccaneers as 4-point favorites. That’s not surprising though, as favorites tend to underperform before a short week (44% cover spot all-time). Both teams came into last week playing pretty well too. The Falcons have just three wins all season, but two of them came in upset fashion in back-to-back weeks prior to last week, with the Falcons beating the Saints and Panthers by a combined score of 55-12. The Falcons have also played better than their 3-8 record suggests, entering this game 18th in first down rate differential at 0.22%.

The Saints, meanwhile, are one of the top teams in the league, despite their upset loss to the Falcons a few weeks ago and their close call against the Panthers last week. They only rank 13th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.71%, but their offense has moved the chains at a 5.30% higher rate with Drew Brees under center rather than backup Teddy Bridgewater, so with Brees back healthy the Saints are as complete as any team in the league. They’ll be without left tackle Terron Armstead in this matchup, but still have the top spot in my roster rankings without him. 

Despite that, we’re getting some line value with the Falcons as 7-point underdogs, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -4.5. However, the Saints have added motivation to win and avenge their previous loss, while the Falcons might not be totally focused in a lost season against an opponent they’ve already beaten once. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 36-25 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s also uncertainty on the Falcons’ side with top receiver Julio Jones not practicing all week. Even if he is active, he might be less than 100% and at risk of reduced snaps or in game setbacks. The Falcons are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I wouldn’t bet on them.

New Orleans Saints 33 Atlanta Falcons 28

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +7

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-5) at New Orleans Saints (8-2)

The Saints surprisingly lost at home to the then 1-7 Falcons a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t even really close, with a final score of 26-9. However, the Falcons were better than that 1-7 record suggested, entering that game 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, and the Falcons have also since gone on to defeat the Panthers 29-3, so that loss doesn’t look so bad anymore, especially since the Saints were able to follow it up with a convincing 34-17 win in Tampa Bay last week. 

With Drew Brees back under center, the Saints are currently the top team in my roster rankings. Their defense has been solid all season, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 34.00%, and their offense has been significantly better in games started by Brees than it has been in games started by Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater led this offense to a 34.15% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 23rd ranked Panthers on the season, while Brees has led this offense to a 38.10% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 10th ranked Colts on the season. Their offense could have even more room for upside, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Brees’ starts last season. Even if this offense doesn’t improve any further, the Saints are arguably the only team in the league with both a top-10 offense and defense. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, have struggled mightily in recent weeks, with backup quarterback Kyle Allen unsurprisingly falling back to earth after a surprisingly strong start to the season. After Allen won his first 4 starts, the Panthers have lost 3 of 4, with their only win in that stretch coming against the Titans in a game they lost the first down rate battle by 3.95%, winning by 10 in a game the Titans missed 3 makeable field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. On the season, the Panthers rank just 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.59%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 22nd. With the Saints at the top of my roster rankings, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -14, so we’re getting good line value with the Saints as 10-point home favorites.

Unfortunately, the Saints are in a much worse spot than the Panthers this week, which hurts their chances of covering. While the Saints have a rematch with the Falcons in 4 days on Thanksgiving, the Panthers have arguably their easiest game of the season on deck, at home against the Redskins, a game in which they are expected to be 9-point favorites. Underdogs of a touchdown or more are 64-41 ATS since 1989 before being favorites of a touchdown or more. The Saints will be favored next week as well, but there could still be some split focus with a team that just defeated them on deck, especially before a short week (favorites cover at just a 44% rate before a short week). The Saints should still be the right side, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet on it. If this line drops and/or cornerback Marshon Lattimore is active for the Saints, I may reconsider.

New Orleans Saints 34 Carolina Panthers 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (7-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6)

The Saints suffered a shocking home loss to the Falcons as 13.5-point home favorites last week, not just losing but losing by the final score of 26-9 in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 8.57%. The peripheral numbers always suggested the Falcons weren’t as bad as their record, as they entered last week 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, despite being just 1-7, but the idea that they could somewhat easily upset the Saints, previously seen as one of the top teams in the league, was beyond anything even the biggest Falcons’ defender could have imagined.

Even with that loss included, the Saints still look like one of the top teams in the league. They rank “just” 11th in first down rate differential at +2.07%, but that’s because Drew Brees has only played a little bit more than 3 of their 9 games. Their offense has moved the chains at a 38.28% rate with Brees under center (most equivalent to the 9th ranked Packers), as opposed to 34.15% with backup Teddy Bridgewater under center (most equivalent to the 23rd ranked Cardinals), while their defense has been among the best in the league on the season, ranking 6th in first down rate allowed at 33.58%. Their offense has even more room for improvement too, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Drew Brees’ 15 starts last season. They rank second in my roster rankings and, with all Super Bowl contenders having at least one bad loss, they still look very much in Super Bowl contention.

Teams tend to bounce back off of huge upset losses anyway, going 30-18 ATS over the past 30 years after losing as favorites or 13 or more. The Saints have typically bounced back off of a loss with Drew Brees under center as well, going 47-31 ATS after a loss with Brees since he arrived in 2006. I wish we were getting more line value as a result as the Saints’ loss and the absence of Saints top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, as this line didn’t move at all from last week to this week, but I have this line calculated at New Orleans -8 and I would be surprised if the Saints had back-to-back bad games, so they’re worth a bet as long as this line remains below 6.

New Orleans Saints 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (1-7) at New Orleans Saints (7-1)

This was one of the tougher games of the week to decide. On one hand, the Saints are arguably the top team in the league. They’ve gone 7-1, despite Drew Brees only playing about nine quarters all season. Their defense ranks 5th in first down rate differential at 33.05% and has been even better over the past 5 games at 27.90%, since the return of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins from injury. They’re at home this week for a 1-win Falcons team and could easily get a multi-touchdown blowout win and cover this 13.5-point line.

On the other hand, the Falcons have statistically been better this season than their record, especially in garbage time, which really matters for a line this big. They rank 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, struggling to win games primarily because of a -11 turnover margin that is the second worst in the NFL. Their defense ranks dead last in the NFL at 41.70%, but their offense ranks 2nd in first down rate at 41.41%, even moving the ball effectively with Matt Schaub under center in their last game (45.07% first down rate). Now with Matt Ryan back healthy, they could keep this game close, even against a top level opponent. My calculated line is New Orleans -13, so we’re getting a tiny bit of line value with the Falcons, but that’s it.

New Orleans Saints 33 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +13.5

Confidence: None

Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 8 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (3-3-1) at New Orleans Saints (6-1)

The Saints won 5 straight games with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater under center, but it’s still big for the Saints to be getting Drew Brees back from his thumb injury this week. Since taking over for Drew Brees in the first quarter of their week 2 game, Bridgewater has led the offense to 113 first downs and 12 offensive touchdowns on 366 snaps, a 34.15% first down rate that isn’t bad, but that is a far cry from last year’s 43.48%. The biggest reason why they’ve been winning has been the play of their defense, which has allowed just a 29.52% first down rate in 4 games since getting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins back from injury. With Brees re-joining this offense, this team is incredibly dangerous. 

The news that Brees will be playing has pushed this line up to New Orleans -12, but I still like the Saints a lot this week. Their opponents the Arizona Cardinals have gotten some attention for their 3-game winning streak, but those 3 wins have come against teams that are a combined 3-18 and they came by a combined 10 points. Their 3 losses, meanwhile, have come by a combined 41 points. They rank 24th in the NFL in point differential at -31, 29th in first down rate differential at -5.67%, and 23rd in my roster rankings. As big as this line is, I think it should be bigger, calculating it at New Orleans -15. 

The Saints are also in a great spot going into a bye, as big home favorites tend to take care of business before a week off. Home favorites of 7+ are 35-14 ATS before a bye since 2002. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are in a tough spot, needing to turn around and play the division leading 49ers in 4 days on Thursday Night Football, a game in which they are 6.5-point home underdogs on the early line. It’s very tough for big underdogs to cover before being big underdogs again, as underdogs of 6+ are 58-90 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 6+ again. On top of that, teams are 42-74 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 6+. The Saints should be able to win with ease and cover the spread as well.

New Orleans Saints 30 Arizona Cardinals 13

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -12

Confidence: High

New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears: 2019 Week 7 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-1) at Chicago Bears (3-2)

Coming out of the bye, the Bears get quarterback Mitch Trubisky back from a shoulder injury that cost him almost two full games (he got hurt 3 pass attempts into week 4), but I’m not sure how much that matters for this struggling offense. The Bears only had a 30.51% first down rate in the two games Trubisky missed, but they weren’t much better in his 3 starts, picking up first downs at a 32.96% rate, and they rank just 28th in the NFL overall with a 31.99% first down rate. Trubisky had seemingly regressed in his third season in the league before his injury and the rest of this Bears’ offense has struggled as well, with and without Trubisky. 

They still have a strong defense, but they aren’t quite as dominant as last year, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 34.24%. They lost talented safety Adrian Amos and key slot cornerback Bryce Callahan in free agency, while 2018 breakout star Eddie Jackson has not had the same kind of year in 2019. Losing defensive end Akiem Hicks, one of their best defensive players a year ago, indefinitely with an injury won’t help matters. The public doesn’t seem to have caught on that the Bears aren’t the same team as last year though, as they are favored by 4 points here at home over the Saints, suggesting they are noticeably the better team in this matchup. 

The Saints have had some good luck to get to 5-1 (4-0 with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater under center) and their offense has been noticeably worse without Brees, moving the chains at a 33.22% rate with Bridgewater in the game, as opposed to the 43.48% rate they moved the chains in 2018 in Brees’ starts. However, their defense has also been much improved in recent weeks, allowing a 29.88% first down rate in 3 games since defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins returned from injury, as opposed to 40.31% in their first 3 games of the season. When Brees returns, this team should be very tough to beat. 

Even with feature back Alvin Kamara also out of the lineup this week, I have the Saints as 3 points better than the overrated Bears, suggesting this line should be about even, so we’re getting significant line value with the Saints as 4-point underdogs, with about 30% of games decided by 4 points or fewer. The Saints may not win straight up, but they have a good shot to pull the “upset” and move to 6-1 and even if they don’t this is likely to be a defensive battle that could easily come down to a field goal. I like getting 4 points with the Saints here.

New Orleans Saints 17 Chicago Bears 16 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4

Confidence: Medium